Theatre review: Wanita, a take on the colourful lives of 1950s Malay socialites, is richly layered

A publicity image for Wanita (The Women), directed by Aidli 'Alin' Mosbit, staged at the Esplanade's Pesta Raya 2014. -- PHOTO: ESPLANADE / THEATRES ON THE BAY
A publicity image for Wanita (The Women), directed by Aidli 'Alin' Mosbit, staged at the Esplanade's Pesta Raya 2014. -- PHOTO: ESPLANADE / THEATRES ON THE BAY

Wanita Esplanade Theatre Studio Aug 29, 2014The eight women depicted on the poster for Wanita, dressed in elegant kebaya with flowers adorning their hair, are alluring.

Yes, their smiles are attractive, but their eyes tell a hidden story – one of pain, secrets and sacrifice.

It is this unpeeling of appearances that makes Wanita such a delight to watch.

Presented as part of Esplanade’s Pesta Raya, this comedy of manners directed by Aidli ‘Alin’ Mosbit revolves around eight women from the privileged echelons of Malay society in 1950s Singapore, and the lengths they go to achieve what they want.

There is a line in the play that goes: “When the ending of the story is good, it’s a good story.”

It is this philosophy that drives all the characters in this play, often involving scheming and conniving, as well as the swallowing of one’s true feelings.

Sometimes, this comes through very poignantly.

The main thrust of the plot follows the discovery by housewife Mariam Hassan (Siti Hajar Ghani) that her husband has cheated on her. She holds it together in front of her daughter, but cries in the lap of her mother, who offers sage and tragically real advice: suck it up kid, I did that too.

At other times, it is presented in the form of a wickedly funny, yet tart social commentary.

Goh Ailing (Gloria Tan) is mocked openly for not being able to keep a trim figure while pregnant (her evening dress channels Chinese opera singer rather than socialite); and gossiped about secretly for not knowing about her husband’s philandering ways.

Yet she still remains cheerful.

Her secret to happiness? “I eat and then I keep,” she says, pointing to her burgeoning belly.

It gets laughs, but it is an oblique admission that she knows more than what she lets on.

The main cast, made of an all-star cast of established theatre and TV actors, do a great job in playing multiple characters that illustrate the complex nature of female relationships, within the higher class as well as between the different classes of society.

Some of the best scenes involve the regular womenfolk. Mariam encounters a loose-lipped manicurist (Nadiah M. Din’s impressive turn as a Penangite) whose idle natter humorously reveals more than she should.

In another scene, house servant Jeton (Seriwahyuni Jaes) breaks from her subservient facade when she recounts, with extreme vivacity and in one-man-show form, the fight between her married employers. The performance got the packed theatre in stitches.

But though they add spice to the story, it is tragic that the lower class women are resigned to be in the shadows of the lives of the glamorous socialites, never to be seen as equals.

But equality is never the point of the play.

While the women naturally band together and complain about men, they are nonetheless shackled by their responsibilities as wives and mothers. Only two characters, Nani Mariam (played by Endang Rahayu Ruslan) and Naemah Baba (played by Aminah Ahmad) are seen as relatively free – one is a child, and one is an ageing feminist spinster.

It is to the director's credit that it is easy forget that Wanita is adapted from a 1930s hit, The Women by Clare Boothe Luce. Though the original is set in Manhattan, Wanita seems tailormade to depict the excessive lives of the rich Malays of old Singapore.

It is also gutting that the concerns plaguing women more than 80 years ago, such as keeping one’s looks and caring about one’s place in society, remain relevant even today, perhaps even more so with the advent of social media.

With 12 scenes over 90 minutes without an interval, certain scenes could do with some tightening and some characters could have been cut without impacting the main story.

But ultimately, the play is a richly layered cake that reveals the inner workings of female Malay socialites deliciously. There was some cheap cream that could have been cast off, but all the parts came together to deliver a satisfying, fitting end.

Sure, Mariam gets the ending she wants by playing a little bit dirty, but this gives Wanita its acidic bite, and also a sobering conclusion: she resorts to all of this because of a man.